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Winter Sowing Method: Starting Seeds in Milk Jugs

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Ugh, the winter! Why does it always feel like the growing season goes by way too quickly?! But not to fret – I’ve recently learned all about the winter sowing method and starting seeds in milk jugs during the winter, way before the last frost!

Even if you don’t have your indoor growing stations set up, you can still start planting! Simply plant seeds inside clear containers like milk jugs and gallon bottles for an early start on this year’s garden.

Winter Sowing Method using a plastic juice bottle cut open with potting soil, child helping
Winter Sowing Method using a plastic juice bottle cut open with potting soil.

Winter sowing is basically a set-it-and-forget-it gardening activity to help us get through the long, boring, and cold winter. Just make sure your containers are getting some precipitation each week and you should be good!

What’s not to love?!

Gardening in winter! Mind = Blown!!

I’m so excited to share all that I know about the winter sowing method and will continue to update this post as things progress.

Winter sowing zinnia seeds in a gallon milk jug
Winter sowing my dad’s zinnia seeds in a gallon milk jug in 2022

I hope you’ll join me – all you need is a plastic milk jug, some potting soil, and seeds!

Let’s get started!

What is winter sowing?

The winter sowing method involves starting seeds in milk jugs or other containers during the winter in climates that don’t typically allow outdoor gardening all year long. The bottle acts as a mini greenhouse, keeping the seedlings warm enough despite outside air temperatures in the winter. Natural precipitation such as rain and snow reach the soil and seeds through an open lid, helping them to germinate in the early spring.

Two jugs for winter sowing seeds outside
Our 2022 efforts included Luffa, Blue Hubbard Squash and Cucamelons, as well as Dad’s Zinnias.

When should I start my winter sowing seeds?

Knowing when to start winter sowing projects depends on where you live and the weather. Wait to winter sow your seeds until the freezing temperatures are consistent. Fluctuating temperatures that get very warm may allow winter sown seeds to germinate too soon. At the earliest, aim to wait for the winter solstice, December 21. For an even more enjoyable experience, make it easy on yourself and start winter sowing after the holidays, in January.

Winter Sowing Jugs cut in half in the green grass
Winter Sowing Jugs cut in half in the green grass

Choosing Winter Sowing Seeds

Finding the best seeds for winter sowing starts with considering your growing zone and what plants take a long time to produce.

You might also want to plant some flowers, even quick growers, so that you get a jump start on your flower garden

Winter Sowing Seed List

As you work to figure out which seeds to winter sow, try looking for those that naturally lend themselves to this method.

  • Cold weather crops, especially vegetables
  • Easy-to-grow annual flowers
  • Seeds from perennials – I’ve never tried this but would love to!

Generally speaking, look for verbiage on the seed packets that suggests the seeds will be a good fit for winter planting. Terms like “direct sow” and “self-sowing” are good clues!

Those listed as cold hardy or requiring cold stratification could also do well if winter sown.

And of course, perennial seeds would work too, since the plants can survive the winter, anyway.

Young daughter with winter planting container
My youngest loved helping me with this fun winter planting project. Here she is with our favorite jug!

Keep reading for more specific vegetables and flowers to try starting from seed in milk jugs or other containers.

Winter Sowing Vegetables

Consider which winter sowing vegetables you’ll be growing this year. I start by planting those that take the longest to make it through their growing season to harvest.

I love to speed things up when for plants requiring a long time to reach maturity, such as peppers, luffa (loofah), bottle gourds, and cucamelons.

Winter sowing in PA zone 6, I plan to winter sow any that need a good and healthy head start, as well as those that are cold tolerant.

Some vegetables to winter sow in our area:

  • Arugula
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Chives
  • Collard Greens
  • Kale varieties
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Lettuce
  • Luffa
  • Radicchio
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard / Rainbow Chard

Most brassicas seem to be fairly cold-hardy, making them one of the best seeds for winter sowing.

I also started our birdhouse gourds in a milk jug, but unfortunately didn’t get to transplant them in time.

Some cold crops vegetables you can plant directly in the ground as soon as you can work the soil. In those cases, I wouldn’t waste time winter sowing vegetables like that.

Winter Sowing Jugs and Containers
Check out my Winter Sowing Jugs and Containers so far! Shh, don’t tell my husband! Last year he threw out my stockpile!! #$%&!

Herbs for Winter Sowing

Enjoy your herb garden a bit earlier this year by starting some seeds in gallon jugs. Here are some good herb seeds to winter sow.

  • Basil
  • Calendula
  • Chamomile
  • Cilantro
  • Dill
  • Echinacea
  • Lavender
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Peppermint
  • Sage
  • Salsify
  • Summer Savory
  • Thyme

Winter Sowing Flowers

Starting some winter sowing flowers is a great idea to get earlier blooms in your garden this year. You will love the pretty flowers outside and the ability to cut fresh flowers for indoors anytime you want!

Try winter sowing flowers like these for a quick and easy display of color all season long!

  • Celosia
  • Cosmos
  • Four O’Clocks
  • Marigolds
  • Morning Glory
  • Nasturtium
  • Petunias
  • Snapdragons
  • Sunflowers
  • Zinnias
Daughter Winter Sowing Flowers (Morning Glory) in a Plastic Container
Little Bear Winter Sowing Flowers (Morning Glory) in a Plastic Container – Look at those little bear paws! (heart eyes)

Hardy, hard-to-kill annuals like these make great flowers for your miniature greenhouses.

Personally, I love to get a jump start on my flower beds by sowing zinnias, cosmos, marigolds, and other favorite summer flowers.

I adore growing a cutting garden for my girls to enjoy all summer long. It’s way better to have flowers blooming in May or early June than later in the summer!

A Head Start for Zinnias

I planted some California Giant zinnia seeds in gallon jugs and got a nice head start for the blooms!

Zinnia seedlings growing in milk jug
Here are some California Giant zinnia seeds growing beautifully in a winter sowing jug. 2022

This is absolutely my all-time favorite photo I’ve snapped of my winter sowing efforts.

Winter Sowing Containers

Milk jugs, gallon water jugs, and clear orange juice bottles or lemonade bottles are among my favorite winter sowing containers.

Although, I suppose I would use other containers like plastic 16-oz water bottles, if needed, to really get enough seeds started!

Winter Sowing in Milk Jugs

Winter sowing in milk jugs is probably the most widespread container style. It’s easy to see why, based on the benefits of starting seeds in milk jugs.

  • Economical
  • Easy to get
  • Easy to cut
  • Quick to build up a supply

This is a great place to start using the winter sowing method. Milk jugs may be the most convenient choice to grow this way for years to come!

Plastic Salad Containers –NOPE!

After seeing it mentioned on Instagram quite a bit, we tried the plastic shell containers from salad bars or bakery sections of the grocery store. In my humble opinion – NOT as good as advertised!!!

Plastic Salad Container for Winter Sowing
Plastic Salad Container for Winter Sowing

I will not be using these again, although I’ve seen some gardening posts where they did work out for people. Your mileage may vary.

Clear Juice Bottles

Seriously, go buy some Simply Lemonade, enjoy it, and reuse the container for winter sowing. That and the similarly shaped orange juice bottles are the perfect choice to create mini greenhouses for winter growing outside. A little harder to cut through, but the crystal-clear visibility is hard to beat.

Winter sowing container - simply lemonade with potting soil
Winter sowing container – simply lemonade with potting soil

Winter Sowing Supplies

All you need to get started is easy to obtain!

  • Plastic containers
  • Duct tape or similar
  • Hot glue gun to melt holes – alternatively, poke holes with a knife
  • Potting soil
  • Seeds

How to Create a Milk Jug Garden

There’s just nothing like gardening in the wintertime. Starting seeds in milk jugs is a fun activity for the kids as well!

Milk Jug Garden and Bulk Zinnia Seeds
Milk Jug Garden and Bulk Zinnia Seeds

Try these tips to create a milk jug garden this winter.

  1. Gather empty milk jugs and other containers to use for winter sowing.
  2. Plug in a hot glue gun and use it to melt drainage holes in the bottom of all the containers. (Unplug when done!)

    Hot glue gun melting holes in jugs
  3. Use a knife or other cutting implement to cut the milk jugs open around the center, almost all the way around. I stop at the handle so there’s a hinge.

    Knife and cut milk jugs for winter seed planting project
  4. Fill the bottom of the milk jug with soil.
  5. Plant several seeds you wish to grow over the winter.

    Packet of Dad's zinnia seeds with some fresh soil in a milk jug
  6. Cover and lightly water.

    Watered zinnia seeds inside a milk jug container
  7. Tape the container closed tightly with duct tape or similar.
  8. Label the container with the type of seeds you planted and the date.
  9. Place the winter sowing jug outside in the sun, in a sheltered location.

    Juice bottle taped closed with zinnia seeds inside
  10. Repeat for as many milk jugs you like!

With a milk jug garden, watering may not even be necessary as long as the snow or rain makes it into the winter sowing containers.

Puppy stuffed animal with a winter jug of seeds
Our daughter’s favorite puppy stuffed animal with a winter jug of seeds

Winter Sowing Maintenance: Weekly Check-ins

Growing plants in milk jugs over the winter is relatively hands-off, which is nice, especially during the colder months.

Still, you should check on your winter sowing seedlings and containers every week to make sure they aren’t drying out. Also check that the drainage holes are working and the mini greenhouses aren’t retaining water.

Bottom of Winter Sow Container with Drainage Holes
Bottom of Winter Sow Container with Drainage Holes

Make sure they’re protected from the wind and animals, too.

Watering a Milk Jug Garden

When it rains or snows, your seeds will likely get some moisture to help them survive.

Winter snow melting in northern regions like our growing zone 6b will add even more moisture to the mini greenhouses.

If you aren’t sure that your winter sowing milk jugs got enough water from rain and snow, you can lightly water them as well.

Check the soil by looking through the container’s opening at the top. If it is light in color or pulling away from the edges, add some water.

For soil that is dark and looks soft and smushy, you can probably safely wait a day or even a few days to check again.

Last year, I think I only watered my winter sowing garden two or three times. The zinnia flowers thrived!

This year I am excited to get an early start on herbs, vegetables, and even more flowers.

Daughter starting seeds in plastic containers for winter sowing
Daughter starting seeds in plastic containers for winter sowing

Get Started with the Winter Sowing Method

Try the winter sowing method to make winter less boring and get a jump start on your garden this year!

I will check back and update once I decide what we will be winter sowing for our 2022 garden. For now, I am pretty sure we’ll do luffa, birdhouse gourds, and zinnias again.

As long as my hubby doesn’t find my collection of empty jugs in the garage, I think we’ll be in good shape for a nice run at the winter sowing method this year!

Have you tried winter sowing yet? Do you have any tips to share? Or, if this is your first year trying it, hit us up in the comments with your questions!

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Happy winter gardening!

By the way – if you like this post, you might also enjoy our post on Wet Paper Towel Germination!

Or you can even check out our winter sow Google Web Story on planting seeds in milk jugs as little greenhouses.

12.28.21 – Updated to add link to more winter garden content.

11.01.22 – Updated to fix spacing and bold headings. Added product recs and personal details about our own winter sowing seeds list.

01.06.23 – Updated to add a lot more photos. Added Google Web Story.

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2 Comments

  1. if I put out a jug of soil and zinnias, I think it would freeze. New England is cloudy most of the winter. Would I not be a candidates for starting zinnias in the jugs, then?

    1. Hi Kate! Thanks for your comment. I have had great success with zinnias in jugs here in PA. I think you could still attempt it, but maybe just don’t plant all your seeds right away? (just in case) The jugs trap the warmth inside like mini greenhouses. You could also wait a bit longer and try it closer to March or so if you aren’t sure. You can replace the cap on especially cold nights. Also, keep them in a sheltered location such as near your foundation / next to your house. Wishing you good luck with this!

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